In the most recent portion of the discussion between South African neuropsychologist Mark Solms and Stony Brook neurosurgeon Michael Egnor at Theology Unleashed (October 22, 2021), talk turned to defining consciousness. Which led in turn to the remarkable (in Solms’s view, “miraculous”) difference between life and non-life — which is not merely a matter of religious opinion. If an accounting is required, it turns out that even Einstein believed in some sort of God and Solms follows his thinking, as we see below. Egnor offers a different view.
Summary to date: In the first portion, Solms, author of The Hidden Spring (2021), began by asserting in his opening statement that “the source of consciousness in the brain is in fact in the brain stem,” not the cerebral cortex, as is almost universally assumed. Dr. Egnor then responded that his clinical experience supports the view that brain is not mind.
Then Solms pointed to the reality that discussing the fact that the brain is not the mind can be a career-limiting move in neuroscience — even though clinical experience supports the view. Egnor and Solms agreed that the further a neuroscientist gets from actual patients, the easier it is to adopt the view that “the mind is just what the brain does” (naturalism). Solms, who trained as a psychoanalyst as well, then described how he understands consciousness — the capacity to feel things, for example, the redness of red (qualia)
And now, at about 00:59:00 min:
Mark Solms: Where does life come from? And the difference between living things and non-living things is, I use the word very advisedly, it’s miraculous.
It’s completely miraculous that this form of organization…that there’s an aim and a purpose, that this is what living things have — an aim and the purpose.
You can’t make sense of anything about even the simplest living creatures, like single-celled organisms, without recognizing that they have an aim and purpose. We don’t make enough of that. Again it’s something that we kind of airbrush out in biology… We need to have more of a sense of wonder about these things. I’m repeating myself but that’s because, from every direction, you end up coming back to the same conclusion. [01:00:00]
Michael Egnor: I was an atheist or at most an agnostic until my mid-forties and I had several experiences that changed me, including kind of a Damascus road experience but also an intellectual experience or a bunch of intellectual experiences… And then I studied St. Thomas [1225– 1274] more because St. Thomas took a lot of Aristotle’ s ideas [384– 322 BC] and developed them further. And they were both theists, St. Thomas obviously — but even Aristotle believed in God. [01:01:30]
My intellectual embrace of theism kind of came out of that. I realized that the hylomorphic , Aristotelian, metaphysical way of looking at the world really made sense of things in a way that nothing else did… I find it kind of one fabric that God exists, created us, and the universe behaves as it does in accordance with that truth. But the truth can be, is, reflected in neuroscience and in all the sciences. [01:02:00]
Mark Solms: So the funny thing is that [you were] motivated, as I was, by puzzling about these profound questions. The particular one at issue being, how come I am a body? What is the relationship between me, this subjective being, and this object. I puzzled about it, pondering it, looking at the question in relation to neuroscientific observations and so on. I was eventually led in the mid 1990s — in fact I wrote a paper about it in ‘97 — to this view that I sketched in a very rough and ready way some minutes ago, which is that there are two appearances. [01:02:30]
The actual thing called “Mark Solms” is neither his subjective experience nor his body. He’s something that unites the two and lies behind both surfaces. And he is not just the appearance, he’s something deeper than that. I was then sort of surprised and disappointed to discover this was not some great insight that I had forged. It was an ancient philosophy that belongs to Spinoza or was articulated most clearly initially by Spinoza. And you will know better than anyone, Michael, Spinoza’s view on these theistic questions that you are touching on. I mean he was a deeply spiritual man.
And he saw all of this as that this… We are of God, we are… All of us, the whole universe is the expression of God. [01:04:30]
Note: Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was a Jewish philosopher in Holland during a period of uniquely broad public toleration of varying religious views. In his view, “God is everywhere, and everything that exists is a modification of God. God is known by human beings through only two of his attributes—thought and extension (the quality of having spatial dimensions)—though the number of God’s attributes is infinite.” – – Britannica
Mark Solms: So the philosophy that I came to is not far removed from the traditions that you that you are drawing.
In that sense, the concept of God seems entirely appropriate to me. As opposed to the concept of God that my parents taught me about, an old wise man with a beard. I think as long as one gets that idea out of one’s head, then I think that you’re speaking with an appropriately reverential word for that which gave rise to everything and explains everything. [01:05:00]
Michael Egnor: Sure. One of the things I really love about Thomism is that it rather nicely combines [that with] the profundity of Spinoza insights. And I have a lot of respect for Spinoza… he’s been the inspiration for a lot of scientists. I mean Einstein commented that the God he believed in was Spinoza’s God so Spinoza fits very nicely into natural science. Spinoza had a lot of very deep insights, the Thomistic view fits in with that, I think, in many very nice ways.
Note re Einstein and Spinoza’s God: “Einstein’s answer to a New York rabbi clears things up a bit. The rabbi cabled him in 1929 to ask him if he believed in God. Einstein replied, ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings’…
“Spinoza used the provocative formulation Deus sive natura—“God, or nature”—but he actually regarded nature as just the visible, comprehensible aspect of God’s infinite, incomprehensible being. One consequence is that everything that happens in nature, and everything that nature’s lawful order dishes out to us personally, is necessary—the way the conclusion of a logical or mathematical demonstration is necessary.” – Lawrence Klepp, Washington Examiner (January 23, 2012). Incidentally, Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue; whether for his unorthodox views or for other reasons has remained unclear to this day though he continued to attend discussion groups.
Michael Egnor: But I think where Spinoza and I would diverge — and St. Thomas would diverge — is that I don’t believe Spinoza saw God as a person. Spinoza’s God was an impersonal being and my own view is that God is the ultimate Person. I think Spinoza saw the ultimate reality as like a Mind and St. Thomas saw the ultimate reality as like a Person. [01:06:30]
Mark Solms: I’m familiar with that statement of Einstein’s, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” And there’s another [01:08:30] statement of Einstein’s which I love to cite, which I think is very pertinent to the discussion we are having right now: It’s important to simplify as much as possible but no more than that. And I think that the… these question that we are talking about, one must have a proper respect for how complex they are. And we should not simplify beyond the level of what is appropriate…
But I’m going to now ask you a question and it is a sincere question. I really am asking you from ignorance. I have difficulty understanding the difference between Spinoza’s view and… St. Augustine’s view that we are ideas in God’s mind.
What do you mean when you say that you don’t think that God is a state of being but rather a person? What is the difference between the two? What is lacking in Spinoza view? [01:10:00]
Next: Egnor and Solms: What does it mean to say God is a Person?
Here’s the whole discussion in order
1.1 Here’s the first portion of the debate/discussion, where neuropsychologist Mark Solms shares his perspective: Consciousness: Is it in the cerebral cortex — or the brain stem? In a recent discussion/debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, neuropsychologist Mark Solms offers an unconventional but evidence-based view, favouring the brain stem. The evidence shows, says Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring, that the brain stem, not the cerebral cortex is the source of consciousness.
And Michael Egnor responds:
1.2. Neurosurgeon and neuropsychologist agree: Brain is not mind Michael Egnor tells Mark Solms: Neuroscience didn’t help him understand people; quite the reverse, he had to understand people, and minds, to make sense of neuroscience. Egnor saw patients who didn’t have most of their frontal lobes who were completely conscious, “in fact, rather pleasant, bright people.”
1.3. Then Solms admits what all know but few say: Neuroscientist: Mind is not just brain? That’s career limiting! Neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor agreed that clinical experience supports a non-materialist view but that the establishment doesn’t. Mark Solms: “science is an incredibly rigid… sort of… it’s like a mafia. You have to go along with the rules of the Don, otherwise you’ve had it.”
In the second portion, they offer definitions of consciousness:
2.1 Materialist neuroscientists don’t usually see real patients. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and neuropsychologist Mark Solms find common ground: The mind can be “merely what the brain does” in an academic paper. But not in life. Egnor takes a stab at defining consciousness: Following Franz Brentano, he says, “A conscious state is an intentional state.” Next, it will be Solms’s turn.
2.2 A neuropsychologist takes a crack at defining consciousness. Frustrated by reprimands for discussing Big Questions in neuroscience, Mark Solms decided to train as a psychoanalyst as well. As a neuropsychologist, he sees consciousness, in part, as the capacity to feel things, what philosophers call “qualia” — the redness of red.
Now, about God…
3.1 Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God. Who is that God? Neuropsychologist Mark Solms admits that life is “miraculous” and sees Spinoza’s God, embedded in nature, as the ultimate explanation. In a discussion with Solms, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor argues that it makes more sense to see God as a Person than as a personification of nature.
3.2 Egnor and Solms: What does it mean to say God is a Person? Mark Solms and Michael Egnor discuss and largely agree on what we can rationally know about God, using the tools of reason. Egnor argues that, if the most remarkable thing about us is our personhood (I am), it Makes sense to think of God as a Person (I AM).
And why materialism is a dying idea…
4.1 Why neuroscientist Solms is no materialist: Information theory He points out that, to begin with, Einstein’s famous equation — E equals MC squared — makes the point that matter is derivative. It’s a state of energy. In Solms’s view, the true implications of quantum mechanics and information theory in refuting materialism are only beginning to be understood.
4.2 Discovering the non-materialist dimension in science Hint: Stephen Hawking was a fine physicist and writer but not a very good philosopher. Neurosurgeon Egnor and neuroscientist Solms agree that great physicists have often been fine philosophers; the universe and consciousness are intertwined.
You may also wish to read: Your mind vs. your brain: Ten things to know